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Beneath The Waves

From Technicolor Fish to Ghostly Shipwrecks, Scuba Diving Reveals a Whole Other World
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

The stingrays were intimidating, despite all the assurances of my safety. With wingspans up to six feet across and a long barbed tail, one was frightening, but when a dozen charged me simultaneously it was downright scary. As their velvet-soft bodies wriggled over mine, their curious eyes investigating a stranger, their mouths seeking the piece of squid I held in my hand, I was totally mesmerized.

I had come to dive at Stingray City, arguably the most popular dive site in the world. Divers flock to Grand Cayman for its calm, clear, warm waters, and despite an abundance of great underwater sights, most everyone who comes dives at Stingray City, at least once.

For those who wish to pass up the stingrays, scuba diving offers myriad other attractions. Some divers delight in the beauty beneath the sea--the colors of coral reefs, the brilliant hues of aquatic animals and plants, the strange sights that have no equal on land. Others are enthralled by the thousands of lost ships, aircraft and other man-made devices. After taking your first plunge as a scuba diver, you will find that there are dozens of different paths of special interest to explore, from underwater archaeology to photography.

More than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water. The sea contains the world's tallest mountains and deepest holes, and the largest living creatures on the planet float effortlessly through the void. Although man has explored the sea in boats for more than a thousand years, travel beneath the surface is still in its infancy. The earliest divers were skin divers, those who dived equipped only with the air in their lungs, usually to gather sponges, pearls or other valuables. While skin divers have achieved some remarkable feats, diving to depths that exceed 100 feet, their journey beneath the surface is fleeting, as they must return to the surface to draw another breath.

Early commercial efforts at salvage introduced helmet diving, where a diver encased in a full-body suit and a huge helmet would walk clumsily along the bottom, attached to the surface by an air hose--a fragile lifeline that if tangled or cut had fatal consequences. Helmet divers were barely mobile, clumsy, and dependent upon staying close to their mother ship.

Diving as a sport has existed only for about 50 years. In June 1943, legendary seaman Capt. Jacques Cousteau donned his Aqua-Lung, a device that he invented and built with fellow Frenchman Emile Gagnan, and the sport of scuba diving was born. Cousteau liberated man from the hose and helmet, and the concept of his original device, though refined, is still the backbone of diving today.

SCUBA is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, the key element of that phrase being self-contained. The scuba diver experiences a freedom that only a handful of astronauts have known--the sensation of true weightlessness. Drew Richardson, editor-in-chief of The Undersea Journal, a quarterly magazine, describes diving as "three dimensional flying," and the uncompromised maneuverability is one of the chief reasons for the ever-increasing popularity of the sport.

"It takes you into a whole other world," says Randy Shaw, training manager for the Montclair, California-based National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). "You get the opportunity to interact with a variety of plant and animal life that simply has no equal on the surface." Sales and marketing director Len Todisco of Ft. Collins, Colorado-based Scuba Schools International says, "It's like returning to the womb--very relaxing and stress-relieving."

There are many unique attractions in the undersea world. Divers regularly cavort with whales, dolphins, sea tortoises, even schools of sharks. The natural architecture of lava flows, towering rock pinnacles and undersea caves beckon to explorers. Thousands of shipwrecks dot the globe, well within the reach of modern dive technology.

Every destination where diving is popular has its own attraction. While Grand Cayman is known for stingrays, Bali is known for drift diving, where divers take an effortless ride on the predictable currents. The Truk Islands, in Micronesia, are world renowned for their extensive collection of wrecks from the Second World War. Hawaii has its "cathedrals," inverted translucent domes formed by lava from volcanic eruptions. Australia offers the mammoth Great Barrier Reef. The list is endless.

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